All radio and TV broadcasts are assigned a “call sign“, a sequence of three or four letters such as WKRP in Cincinnati. I got curious as to how these came about and why.
When my parents grew up, in a rural area, you and all your neighbours shared the same wired phone line. That means the phone would ring in all the houses at the same time. To stop everybody from picking up you would be assigned a number of rings. If the phone rings once, it’s meant for the first house, two rings signal the second house to pick up. (However, nothing stopped nosy neighbours from listening in to your conversations)
Telegraph operators had a similar solution. A message would begin with a “code” of sorts to announce the intended recipient down the line.
This practice was borrowed in the early days of radio communication. At the time, in the early 1900s, the primary use of radio was communicating between ships and harbours. In order to get a message to the right person, each station, be it land-based or ocean-going, could choose its own call sign letters. However, this quickly proved a problem as multiple ships would claim the same sign. It was a regulator’s dream!
In 1912 some folks met up in London to start organizing radio call signs. Assuming three-letter signed, they began divvying up the alphabet, giving the F’s to France, the B’s to Great Britain, the W’s and (most of) K’s to the United States, and so on. From there, it’s up to the countries themselves hand them out.
In the USA, radio station on the eastern coast tend to start with W, while the western stations (coast, not genre) begin with K. That was only for stations on land. Ships were assigned just the opposite… K on the east coast and W in the west. (though that plan became obsolete with the Panama Canal)
While some call signs are randomly assigned, many stations have applied for “vanity” call signs. CFCF in Montreal stands for “Canada’s First, Canada’s Finest”. In Chicago, WLS is for “World’s Largest Store” as the radio station was first owned by Sears, Roebuck Co. (and for my younger readers… Sears used to be a big deal)
Now, technically, the call signs serve no modern purpose other than licensing paperwork, as broadcast stations are no longer in the business of communicating. In most of the world they have been left to gather dust but US law still requires, for example, that a TV station identifies its call sign once an hour.
You’ve been reading LSNED. Over and out.
- Source: 3-Letter Call Signs – Early Radio History